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His goal that morning was to reach the hills before the sun was high. He said his farewells to the ranch owner and the other cowboys the night before he left. Buck Wilson had wished him luck, and John had assured him that if he ever rode for another ranch, he would come back and ride for him. He didn't explain why he was leaving, he simply said he had business that needed tending and a long ride to get to where that business was. Wilson knew enough not to ask questions.
John Garrett rode a long, rangy sorrel horse with the unlikely name of Prince. Sometimes he thought the name was kind of silly, but he had named the horse when he was a colt because he was almost too showy to be a working horse. He was still showy, as well as big and powerful, and he was the best trail horse John had ever owned. He lifted the reins and urged Prince to a mile-eating trot.
The second morning on the trail John broke camp early and rode two miles into Mesilla to stock up on supplies. There would be nights he would have to camp on the trail. Later in the day, working his way northwest from Mesilla, he made good time. He was determined to save his horses' strength, so he stopped and made camp the second day after riding only twenty miles. He unsaddled Prince and rubbed him down thoroughly with his saddle blanket, then turned him loose to forage. There was little grass for him to find on the lower slopes of the Las Cruces Mountains.
"I have to take it easy and be patient," John said to himself. He desperately wanted to hurry, but he knew that pushing his horse too fast would be a foolhardy way to begin a journey of more than four hundred miles. A journey that would take him back to another life. A life he had sworn to forget.
Alec Gunnison's visit brought it all sweeping back. The anger, and the sickness he felt every time he thought of that last day. The day he left the ranch he loved and expected to live on for the rest of his life. He could still see Mason Garrett's angry face, and the whip. Alec said he had a duty to go home and help his father in his trouble.
"Well," John thought, "I'm going home, but only because it's my duty. When this is settled, I'll never stay."
It was the best time of the year to travel. Most late afternoons John found water and a good place to camp. Whenever possible he stopped at a large ranch. The owner or foreman was sure to offer a meal and a bed in the bunkhouse for him and feed for his horse. Occasionally he spent the evening and night at a mining camp or a small town where he could get a hot meal.
When he passed the night in a town or at a ranch John always took time to groom Prince well and feed him grain at night. He repeated the process before they started out the next day. The big horse had great stamina, but he had been fed grain regularly and it would preserve his strength.
John followed the route he had taken when he left his home six years before. Remembering how he had burned with anger and bitterness as he rode away from all he loved was still painful. The anger had softened, but he was still bitter.
There was little in the way of a direct trail to follow in the direction he was traveling, but here and there a rough track had been marked by wagons. Those trails provided easy travel for a few miles until they turned in a different direction. It was late August and rains came almost every afternoon. The slopes of the White Mountains were covered in patches of green. This was the only time of year when there was color on the mountains southeast of Silver City.
John had turned north at a town called Deming that was once a stop for the Butterfield Stage, then his route turned northwest, keeping the Mimbres River on his left. The going was easy near the river and he made the hundred miles to Silver City in only four days. This trail was once a favorite route of the Apache. The whole area was Apache territory. Ten years earlier no one would have been foolish enough to ride from Deming to Silver City alone. Only large well-armed groups were safe. But the Apache were gone. They had all been killed or tamed.
Leaving Silver City on a trail that led northwest to Buckhorn, John crossed a small river. It was probably a branch of the Gila. After that crossing his route turned more to the north and passed a short distance east of Mule Creek on an old trail into the Mogollons. It took several days for him to ride through the mountains. The valleys were covered in a thick growth of Grama grass providing plentiful food for Prince. As the trail went upward, he passed through areas covered in scrub Oak, and then reached forests of the tall, graceful Ponderosa Pine. Up higher, he could see Aspens growing on southern slopes. Most nights he camped near a creek or spring that lay under large Cottonwoods or Willows. Game was plentiful. He often shot a rabbit from his horses' back and ended the day by enjoying it for his supper, roasted over his campfire.
When he finally crossed the San Francisco River and turned west toward Clay Springs John felt as though he had been on the trail a month, although he left the lake country and reached Clay Springs on his fourteenth day of travel. Clay Springs was a beautiful place to camp. After removing his gear and unsaddling the horse, he led Prince to a grassy area about a hundred yards from the spring. He had decided to stay at the spring for two full days to give the horse a rest. He had seen a small herd of deer less than a mile before he reached the spring, and wanted to try to get a shot at one.
At daybreak three days later John broke camp and set off to the northwest. His route would turn sharply back to the east before he reached the Tonto and then it would join a trail running northeast into the mountains.
Deep in the mountains, he decided to make a last stop at a little town that sat across the trail leading to an unnamed river crossing. As he remembered, Ellison Grove wasn't much of a town, but it would surely have a mercantile with the supplies he needed. He looked forward to getting a meal someone else had cooked and a good night's rest in a bed for himself and a stable with a large bait of oats for Prince. He would be able to replenish his food supply, and buy more ammunition.
He felt sure he could reach the cabin in no more than two day's ride from Ellison Grove. He wanted to arrive alert and well rested. He hoped the cabin would be empty, but he knew there was no telling what he would find.
It was late afternoon when he rode into Ellison Grove. As he approached the town, he passed about a dozen scattered, shack-like houses and an unpainted church on his left. It was plain to see that the place was far from prosperous. The entire center of the town seemed to consist of one long block of buildings. The block was held down on the east by a large mercantile store and on the west by a livery stable. Some small shops and according to the fading sign, a combination saloon and hotel stood in between. John decided to stop first at the mercantile and get his supplies so he would be free to make an early start the next morning.
Tossing Prince's reins across the hitching rail, he dismounted and climbed the steps to the store porch. Four disreputable looking older men were sitting in chairs propped against the front wall of the store. Each one nodded as he crossed to enter the double doors. The store clerk was also an older man.
"How can I help you, mister," the clerk said, examining John with his eyes as he crossed to the counter.
"I need a few supplies." Without further conversation John listed the supplies he needed. "I want five pounds of flour, a pound of coffee, a quarter pound of salt, about five pounds of bacon, and three cans each of beans and peaches. I also want three boxes of .44s."
As the clerk rushed to fill his order John looked around the store. It didn't look as though it was doing a booming business. There weren't many things on the store shelves except for the staple items such as food and various kinds of ammunition. What little bit of stock there was looked dusty and neglected. So far the whole town of Ellison Grove looked sort of run down. "I hope the hotel and saloon has got a halfway decent bed and some food that tastes better than jerky and water." John thought.
Gathering his supplies into a cloth sack, John paid the clerk and waited for change from a twenty-dollar gold piece. The clerk examined the coin carefully then continued to watch John's every move. The man seemed to want to speak, but when he looked up at John's shuttered expression, he evidently decided questions would be unwelcome. He finally just handed John his change and thanked him for his business.
Under the intent stares of the four old men on the store porch John stowed the boxes of shells in his saddlebags and tied the bag of food supplies behind his saddle. Ignoring the men, he led his horse across the dusty street to the hitching rack in front of the saloon. He intended to have a meal and take a look at one of the rooms before he made up his mind on whether to stay the night. He was beginning to think he might be more comfortable if he moved on and camped somewhere on the trail. The idea of staying in a hotel that was part of a saloon, in a town that was looked so broke, was giving him an uneasy feeling in his stomach.
It was dim inside the saloon in the waning light of late afternoon. John stood in the doorway for a moment giving his eyes time to adjust. He saw a kid and an older man standing at the bar and five more men playing cards at a table nearby. The card players looked like cowboys. Aside from the man tending bar, the only other person he could see was a tired looking young woman standing at the foot of a set of steps that probably led to the hotel part of the establishment.
The place looked dangerous. John immediately decided to enjoy a glass of beer then hit the trail. He lost all appetite for trying the food advertised by a sign over the bar that was hand-lettered "eats." He caught the bartender's eye and ordered his beer. The man stopped talking, but continued to watch John with interest as he drew the beer and handed him the glass. John dropped a coin on the bar. Picking up the glass he walked to a table at the back of the room to sit with his back against the wall. Slowly sipping the cool beer, he began examining what he could see of each man in the room. He kept his hat brim pulled down enough to hide his eyes and slowly concentrated on each man.
He wasn't exactly sure what he was looking for, but he continued to sit sort of hunched over his glass as he examined the men. He was sure the saloon was a good place to stay ready for anything. He knew the men at the table were busy playing cards. One or the other would occasionally look toward the bar. He could hear the kid standing at the bar telling his companion how fast he could draw his gun. Suddenly, the kid turned and leaned back against the bar, looking across the saloon at John.
"Hey, stranger," he asked in a loud voice. "What are you hiding from?"
John kept his head down and ignored the question. Obviously irritated by John's silence, the young man continued. His voice was full of contempt. "You look like you might be on the run, fella. Is that why you're in Ellison Grove?"
The men at the card table began to look nervous. They looked at each other for a moment. Without speaking they threw down their cards, picked up their money, and pushed back their chairs to stand. As the men moved toward the door to leave, the kid left the bar to come across the saloon and stand in front of John's table.
"Are you deaf, cowboy," he demanded belligerently, "or are you just too stupid to answer a question?"
John looked up into the rider's face. A closer look confirmed that the would-be bully wasn't much more than a boy. "Look kid," he said quietly. "Go back over to the bar and mind your own business."
"You're my business right now," the boy's face contorted in anger as he answered. Stepping back from the table he dropped his right hand near his pistol. "You get on your feet and draw your gun or answer my questions, drifter."
John slowly stood, holding his hands up and away from his colt. "Forget it, kid. I won't fight you. I don't shoot at children. Why don't you go on about your business and leave me alone."
"That must surely be my problem, son. You just run on home to your Mama now." John answered as he sat back down and picked up his glass, turning his head to take another sip of his beer. The boy sputtered with fury. There were witnesses in the Saloon. He couldn't draw on a man who refused to fight back. He glared at John for a moment then turned and strode out of the saloon.
John sat very still and slowly finished his beer. When he stood up to leave he turned to check the man standing at the bar for any threatening movement. The bartender was busy polishing glasses and carefully ignored him. The man standing at the bar was busy looking into a glass of beer. John crossed to the saloon's double doors and stepped out onto the porch.
The boy from the saloon stood in the street beside Prince. He held John's Henry in his left hand. Raising the rifle high over his head, he yelled. "A man that won't fight don't deserve to have guns, yellow-belly." As he finished speaking he threw John's rifle into the middle of the dusty street and lunged for his pistol with his right.
John drew and fired just as the young man began to raise his pistol. The boy dropped like a stone, his hat and gun falling under the horse's feet. At the sound of the shots men ran out of the saloon to gawk first at the fallen boy, then at the John. One man turned and ran up the street, yelling for the sheriff. Grabbing his Henry out of the dust of the street, John picked up his horse's reins and started to mount up.
A tall, angry looking man who wore a sheriff's badge and carried a shotgun approached John. "You hold on there a minute, mister." The man John had noticed running up the street stood just behind the sheriff.
Staring at the face of the approaching man, John suddenly realized that he knew who this sheriff was. His name was Jake Thornton. He was wanted outlaw in Texas, and a thoroughly dangerous man.
"The boy drew on me, Sheriff. I had no choice but to shoot."
"Who saw it happen?" the sheriff turned to the crowd that had gathered on the saloon porch. No one came forward. Although it was actually possible that no one had seen what happened. It was plain to John that no one was going to admit to having seen the fight even if they had.
"That's it, stranger," The Sheriff said, stepping forward. "I'm locking you up until the circuit judge gets here. That's my sister's boy you gunned down. If he dies I'll see you hang for shooting him. He's nothing but a kid."
John knew he couldn't let this sheriff put him in jail. He didn't know a soul in this town and if there were no friendly witnesses to the gunfight, he wouldn't have a chance at a trial if the boy died. He knew he'd probably end up being shot trying to escape anyway with Jake Thornton as Sheriff.
John was beginning to suspect that no matter what happened, the people of this town never intended for him to leave. For one thing, he had shown money at the mercantile when he bought his supplies and for another, he had a fine horse and outfit. His decision not to stay overnight in the place had been a good one, but he had to get out of Ellison Grove now.
Thornton stepped closer to John and lowering the shotgun, he raised his hand to reach out for his arm. John waited until the outlaw turned sheriff was in position, then hit him in the mouth with a stunning left, knocking him to the ground. As the man was falling, John reached his saddle in two jumps and dug his spurs in Princes' flanks as he turned him toward the western end of the town.
Lying as flat as possible against the horses neck, John urged him to a gallop as he settled in the saddle. The sound of scattered gunshots reached him as he passed the livery and turned onto the dusty road leading to the river. He guided the horse along the beaten track for a short distance, then turned off into some scattered trees and brush, slowing Prince to a smooth canter.
John stopped the horse as he topped a sharp rise and turned to look back. He expected to be followed, and he was not disappointed. Just as he turned, a group of ten or more men came around the livery barn, running their horses. He shook his head in disgust as he urged Prince over the little rise and turned west toward the mountains. Keeping the sorrel at a canter as long as the faint trail lasted, he slowed him to a trot as he entered an area strewn with rocks and full of places where the horse could easily break a leg if he put a foot wrong.
Twilight caught him well into the hills, back on a clear trail. As the darkness increased he had to slow his horse to a walk and let him find his own footing. The trail seemed to be heading down hill, and soon he noticed that the horse had picked up his pace. He was acting as though he smelled water.
"We must be coming to the river." John said aloud. "I knew it wasn't too far. Maybe Thornton and his men will give up on me after we cross."
He shook his head and laughed aloud at his foolishness. He knew entertaining the idea that the men would just give up was foolish. The men were well behind him, but not nearly far enough for him to feel safe. Even if he kept moving all night the area he was riding through was so cut up and full of rocks and small canyons that he couldn't make much time. The sheriff or some of the local men riding with him probably knew the area well and they would be able to move much faster than he could.
Soon he could hear the river rushing along at the bottom of the deep cut in the rocks. As his horse picked his way down the narrow trail the sound grew to a roar. Suddenly the big horse stopped and John could see the water. It was almost black in the meager light and looked menacing.
He dismounted and let the horse drink a little. Pulling Prince back from the water, so he wouldn't drink too much too quickly, John knelt at the edge of the water to refill his canteen and quench his own thirst. He sat down beside the water and rested, waiting patiently. The posse was gaining on him while he waited, but he had to let his horse drink again if he was going to carry him to safety.
After a few minutes, John let Prince take a longer drink then he climbed back into the saddle. He knew that trying to cross the river when it was so dark in the canyon that he couldn't see the rocks on the other bank was foolhardy at best, but he couldn't stay where he was. He'd be caught and shot or more likely, he'd be hanged out of hand, if he had Thornton figured right.
Guessing that the landing on the other side would be roughly straight across from where he entered the river, he put the sorrel into the water, heading him up-stream to swim against the rushing current. He was hoping that if he missed the low place on the other bank in the dark, he would be a little up-stream, so he could still reach safety before he was swept away by the swift water. Luck and the sheer power of the big sorrel horse helped him guide Prince to a spot where he could climb out of the river and back up on the trail.
The track away from the river led sharply upward. The rocky wall on this side was almost straight up so that the narrow path followed a series of cutbacks zigzagging to the top. John had almost reached level ground when Thornton and several of his men rode into the cut on the other side of the canyon.
He heard the men shouting when they spotted him in the dim light of the rising moon. Bullets immediately began to hit the rocks around John. He was within easy rifle range. The only thing that was saving him from the wild barrage of firing was that the men were riding downhill and the movement of their horses ruined their aim. He knew that it wouldn't be long before one of them stopped and dismounted in order to get a good shot. He wouldn't have a chance as long as he was in such an exposed position.
Just as the straining horse reached the top of the canyon and leaped for the open, a bullet smashed into John's back, high up on his right shoulder. He grabbed for the horse's mane with his left hand as his head swam with shock and pain. He almost lost consciousness. Unguided, the horse slowed, but kept moving. John lay his head against Princes' neck and twisted one hand in his mane to keep himself from falling. He shook his head to clear it.
After a few minutes, the shock began to wear off enough so he could think. He knew he had to keep moving, and pray that the wound didn't leave enough blood on the ground to make a trail for the men following him. No, he couldn't just keep on riding. He would have to stop and bind the wound to stop the bleeding if he were going to have any hope of getting away.
He slowed his horse to a walk and turned away from the trail. Urging his horse into a thicket of scrubby Oak trees, he stopped. Moving as though in a dream, John opened his left hand and released his grip on the horse's mane. He pushed against the horn of his saddle until he could sit erect. The pain seemed to envelop his entire body. He was breathing hard with the effort it took to stay upright in the saddle. He felt weak and dizzy. Using his left hand, he rummaged in his saddlebag for a spare shirt. He draped the shirt over his right shoulder with most of it covering the gaping wound created by the bullets' exit. Pulling the shirt as tight as he could, he tied the sleeves in a knot to hold it in place.
"Blast," he muttered, "that probably won't do much good." It was the best he could do though, with only his teeth and one hand.
The dizziness John felt when the bullet first hit him was beginning to subside. He felt strong enough to keep riding. He had to keep on riding. He held the horse to a walk through the brush, guiding him carefully to avoid open spaces where he would leave tracks. He didn't need to make it easy for the posse to follow. He was so thirsty, he had to drink, and he had to find more water before he emptied his canteen.
John began to worry about his horse. He wondered how much longer the big sorrel could keep on going without rest. Maybe Alec would ride out to meet him. Then he remembered that Alec wouldn't be there. Alec went to California. It felt like he was getting close to the cabin. He shook his head to clear it. His thinking was getting muddled.
Jerking his head up, John suddenly realized his horse had stopped to graze. He turned to look behind him. He could see the horse had wandered well away from the trail. They were in the edge of a thick pine forest. The land rose sharply to the north, so he would be climbing if he kept on in the direction he was headed. Was he headed in the right direction? Would he be able to hang on as weak as he was? Unsure exactly where he was, John was aware enough to know it would be harder for the posse to find him if he continued deeper into the wood.
He pulled up on the reins to stop the sorrel from grazing and nudged him farther under the trees. Limbs brushed against him. He was so weak it felt as though the trees were deliberately trying to knock him out of the saddle. Finally the tired horse stopped to graze again in a small clearing. The sun was shining. John could feel warmth on his back. He was so thirsty. He reached for his canteen then remembered it was empty. He felt a wave of dizziness pushing his head back down against the horse's neck. He was so tired—so thirsty.
Posted July 8, 2003
I really enjoyed this story. In the tradition of Louis L'Amour it has the dark handsome hero, and the beautiful strong-willed heroine. Silver Creek is well written with characters that you will love.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 15, 2003
What a great story! The author's knowledge and attention to detail pulls the reader right into the story. This book has unforgettable characters wrapped into a solid, interesting plot. I would recommend this book to anyone.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2003
Ms. Holt¿s knowledge of location and realistic descriptions create an interesting story. Her hero, John Garrett, gets shot and is nursed back to health by a beautiful young woman. He then goes on to solve the mystery of what is happening on his father¿s ranch. There is plenty of action, realistic characters, and a satisfying ending. Also, Silver Creek is suitable for all ages. Who could ask for more?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.